Sunday, November 2, 2008

Playing Small

Like all artists, musicians are caught between two conflicting fears. We’re afraid no one will come to the show. And we’re afraid they will. We can’t decide which is worse: failure or success.

We need an audience, but we really want to be alone. We loath the anonymity of failure almost as much as we fear the utter exposure of success.

If you aspire to be anything in this life – a teacher, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker or, God forbid, a singer songwriter – you’re going to have to negotiate this paradoxical minefield. Many of us are paralyzed. We don’t take the next step because we don’t want to get blown up.

But what is it really that’s holding us back?

The common assumption is that we fear failure. We don’t reach for greatness because we’re convinced we’ll fall short. We don’t want to look stupid. It’s so much easier to hold still, risk nothing and nurture the illusion that we’re satisfied with our incompletion. We wear our dissatisfaction like a badge.

But there’s another, subtler fear that lurks behind the more obvious one. Fear of failure is one thing. What about fear of success?

Marianne Williamson, in her bestselling book A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles in A Course in Miracles, wrote very powerfully on this subject. This quote has been circulating the internet for years. It is often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela. That’s because he adapted this passage for his inauguration speech in 1994 when he was elected the first black president of South Africa, a country painfully emerging from the mud of apartheid. Mandela had been imprisoned by the white regime for twenty seven years. He had a lot of time to think about the big questions. What holds us back? What moves us forward? How can we heal ourselves, heal our nation and heal the world? One can only speculate about how this passage affected Mandela. As you read it, ask yourself, is this about me? Williamson writes,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? […] Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Our practiced unwillingness to cultivate our own greatness deserves deeper reflection and contemplation than we normally allow. What if she’s right? What if the possibility of our wild success is more paralyzing than the possibility of our utter failure? Why do we feed, day after day, on the bitter bread of our own indifference, our own apathy, our own resentment? Why, now, have we given up? Surely the fear of failure is an inadequate explanation.

Where did we get the message that our greatness was threatening to others? Where did we learn the lie that the best way to help other people feel good about themselves was to mute our brilliance? Who told us that we did not deserve love, prosperity, health and joy? And why did we so readily believe them?

Somehow we confused mastery with arrogance, creative abundance with egotism, brilliance with narcissism. We are right to guard against arrogance, egotism and narcissism. But we are wrong, dead wrong, to eschew mastery, creative abundance and brilliance in the name of a distorted notion of humility.

On the contrary, is it not ultimately more egotistical to hide our light for fear of looking foolish? What are we protecting? Real humility would be to get our ego out of the way and honor the gifts we have been so graciously given by the all-knowing mind of the universe – to cultivate the courage and discipline to live fully, fearlessly and authentically, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.

We stare through the bars of our fear-wrought prison; we torture ourselves with doubt, confusion and false humility. But don’t despair. Mandela lived in a literal prison. He was routinely tortured. Yet he ultimately triumphed. Mandela believed in the light, and in the power of ordinary people to be great.

By cultivating our greatness we are better able to serve others. And then the real miracle happens: “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”. Far from intimidating others with our light, we inspire them. Cultivating your authentic, creative, generous self is your greatest gift to the world. In fact, it’s your obligation and your duty. Not for ego, not for glory, not for fame and not for money. All those things may or may not happen incidentally. They were never the goal. The real goal is and always has been service. By cultivating your authentic, creative self you are participating in the sustenance of the universe. And we can’t do it alone. We need as many people as possible to cultivate their own greatness. Perhaps we are reaching the tipping point as more and more people are liberated from the chains of limited thinking and fearful ignorance. As we awaken to our deeper reality, others are inspired to awaken as well. We serve nothing but our own fear-based ego by playing small. Living our dreams, dreams planted deep within us when the dream of the universe was born, is our sacred duty and honor. Live the life of your dreams. Risk everything. You have nothing to lose but your fear and your egoic confusion. Trust the light. Live big. Live bright. Your soul is crying for it. The time has passed for playing small.

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